Few people like poetry and find its short metaphorical references difficult. Why parse meter and verse when prose speaks more plainly and simply? Why struggle through the abstractions of Blake or the classical references embedded in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter when Dickens will do?
Why? Because poetry like Cubism disassembles what we are used to seeing, and reassembles it through the lens of the artist who may distort, realign, or even invert reality; but who explores essentials, foundations, principles.
In this poem Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself Wallace Stevens reconfigures the image of a day at the end of winter into an existential view of a new reality.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquismIn This Consciousness That Is Aware Emily Dickinson similarly juxtaposes daily life with the reality that we experience at the edge of consciousness.
Of sleep's faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry-it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality
This Consciousness that is aware Of Neighbors and the Sun Will be the one aware of Death And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval Experience between And most profound experiment Appointed unto Men --
How adequate unto itself Its properties shall be Itself unto itself and none Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself The Soul condemned to be -- Attended by a single Hound Its own identity.
Hart Crane in Forgetfulness writes of the liberating nature of forgetfulness, disputing Nabokov’s premise that memory is everything, that the past is the only tangible evidence of being, that present and future are either momentary or only probable.
Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, --
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.
Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, -- or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, -- white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the Sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.
I can remember much forgetfulness.T.S. Eliot cynically wrote about the very nature of existence.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion…
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them.
There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.Faulkner went on to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen who left the West Virginia hollers for fame and fortune in the Mississippi Delta, but in his very American ambition and desire overlooked human nature and how it hobbles the most able and willful.
Absalom, Absalom is a story of America. How Thomas Sutpen sought fame and fortune, defied all odds by developing ‘Sutpen’s One Hundred’ – 100 square miles of rich bottomland but land overgrown with cypress and tangled undergrowth, infested with snakes and malarial mosquitos. Sutpen had vision, ambition, will, ingenuity, purpose, and absolute conviction. His story is told poetically through the eyes of Miss Coldfield, his legitimate and illegitimate children, his wider family, and those living near him.
The novel, along with Joyce’s Ulysses were dramatic departures from 19th century narrative fiction. Dickens, Hardy, the Brontes, George Eliot, Du Maurier, Flaubert, and Hugo all wrote about chance, circumstance, class, opportunity, fate, and fortune. The novels of such authors never altered reality. If anything they accentuated it, for their heroes and heroines, for all their will and character, were subjects to and victims of fate.
Poetry of the same era, however, was far more introspective and complex. Longfellow, for example, in his Psalm of Life wrote:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,There can be a no more venal and intellectually dismissive age than this one. In the ages of Shakespeare and Moliere, the peasantry could never have been expected access to art and literature; but there is no excuse today. We could if we wished put politics, Hollywood, Wall Street, and Things That Matter aside; but we don’t. Few of us have the interest let alone the patience to read Blake, Wordsworth, or Shakespeare; and yet it is these poets who can help us navigate our way.
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave…
The most serious poets like Rimbaud and Mallarme wrote of essences – the nature of love and accommodation. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets about love and marriage. He was less interested in the nature of existence than he was in the complexity of ordinary human life. No one concerned about gender and sexuality could do better than read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, one of the most complex and allusive of any.
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
And thinking referentially is what poetry is all about. Extracting meaning from a few lines of verse and using it to put trillions of bytes of information into some perspective.
Perhaps it is disingenuous to write about poetry in an election year, a time when there is a greater volume of words, images, and references in the media than at any other time
On the other hand, perhaps it is exactly the right time to cite verse. There is no better moment to read allegorical and metaphorical verse than now when rhetoric and fantasy rule. Poetry can give grounding, pause, and intellectual reflection.
Then again there’s Ogden Nash:
One way to be very happy is to be very rich
For then you can buy orchids by the quire and bacon by the flitch.And yet at the same time People don't mind if you only tip them a dime,
Because it's very funny
But somehow if you're rich enough you can get away with spending
water like money
While if you're not rich you can spend in one evening your salary for
the year And everybody will just stand around and jeer.
If you are rich you don't have to think twice about buying a judge or a
horse, Or a lower instead of an upper, or a new suit, or a divorce,
And you never have to say When, And you can sleep every morning until nine or ten, All of which Explains why I should like very, very much to be very, very rich.